A Time to Learn

Growing up, my hero was baseball player Ted Williams. He was past his playing days when I was a kid, but Williams was such a cultural icon and personality that his rare talent and accomplishments were well known. What drew me to him was his unceasing commitment to his craft, his analytic approach to improving himself, and his unapologetic pursuit of his goal to become “the greatest hitter that ever lived.” Long before the intensive use of data in sports, Williams was known as a determined student of the game, making a careful study of his opponents, the ideal weight of his bat, and the physics of his beautiful swing.

That commitment to always improving carried over into other realms of his life; in reality, it defined him. Williams interrupted his baseball career twice to serve as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War, and earned a reputation as an elite aviator. After his playing days, he devoted himself to sport fishing, a pastime at which he became such an expert that he designed his own line of equipment and gear, leading to a successful business career.

I still find myself drawn to people who are passionate about excellence and devote themselves to constant self-improvement and learning. No one I know exemplifies these qualities more than my wife’s grandfather. I am repeatedly amazed at his absolute passion for learning, a hallmark of his character across his 95 years. As a young man, he trained as a fencer, competing in three Olympics. Along the way, he developed a love of jazz music and learned to play the saxophone. He also turned his interest in sailing into long and distinguished service as a naval officer, which he later built on to launch a successful career in the shipping industry.

Since retiring 25 years ago, he’s only become more active as a learner. He consumes books on a vast range of subjects, delves deeply into current events and issues, works doggedly at improving his chess game, and enthusiastically researches the origins and meanings of new words he reads or hears—in multiple languages. I can’t be sure he’s found the secret to a longevity, but I’m certain he’s figured out how to live a full and interesting life. Everywhere he goes and everyone he meets is, for him, an opportunity to engage in new ideas and knowledge.

Learning as a Profession

Such dedication to a lifetime of learning is not only a trait worthy of admiration and emulation; it has become fundamental for professional success. The recently released Pew Research Center and Markle Foundation report, “The State of American Jobs,” makes a forceful case for the necessity of ongoing acquisition of new skills and knowledge and offers insight into how adults in the United States have begun to take this reality to heart.

According to the study, 54% of adults in the workforce believe it is “essential” to be training and learning new skills throughout their careers. Another 33% believe it is “important.” And none of this diminishes the other tremendously important benefits of lifelong learning—including personal satisfaction, better mental and physical health, and an informed and engaged citizenry. In the modern workforce, continuous upskilling—improving established knowledge and skills and acquiring new—is imperative to keep pace with emerging industries, technological advances, automation, and global competition.

Beyond the widespread recognition that learning is a lifelong necessity for professional efficacy and growth, workers place the responsibility to pursue those opportunities both on themselves and on the formal education system. For 72% of those surveyed, “a lot” of the responsibility for lifetime learning falls on individuals themselves; 60%, however, also believe that public schools bear “a lot” of the responsibility.

We increasingly recognize these benefits and the need to keep learning across our lives, and we are figuring out how to achieve those goals — through an ever-varying mix of individual initiative, self-teaching, and formal education.

Becoming Lifetime Learners

But the question then must become: how do we help people become successful lifetime learners? Learning across a lifetime requires the know-how and confidence to be self-directed as a learner, not to mention a genuine passion and eagerness for learning. Given the abundance of open educational resources, low cost courses, and free materials online, there isn’t truly a supply problem (though we can never neglect our obligation to improve affordability and accessibility, especially in light of well known obstacles in the formal education sector).

But genuine learner agency, and an ecosystem that supports it, is more challenging. We must do a better job of cultivating these skills in primary and secondary schools, empowering students to chart their own educational course, nurturing their innate curiosity, and instilling in them the confidence to tackle hard challenges and overcome setbacks.

To ensure learning continues later in life, we need to give students better tools to articulate and communicate what they know, making it possible for them to carry their full and diverse learning portfolio in and out of the formal education system. These tools would help them better identify the right opportunities and be more effective advocates; they would also help the instructors, mentors, and employers they work with along the way better tailor learning to each student. In short, we need lifelong learners who are not only capable but who are also effective managers and advocates of their own learning process.

Providing these kinds of tools is not just about technology, though innovations in transcripting, student-centered learning platforms, and adaptive learning are surely important drivers in facilitating lifetime learning. But it’s mostly about mindset: Making formal education less about a credential that acts as a rough proxy for accomplishment and know-how and more explicitly about essential skills and knowledge, recognizing and rewarding—as employers, as educators, and as a society—the virtue and value of a lifetime of both formal and informal learning experiences, and lowering barriers to resources and opportunities for learners of all ages and aspirations.